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Flashing Lights Are Blinding

Subscriber Post by Rivelo on December 16th, 2015 at 8:38 am

Our Instagram post the other day received a large number of “likes” and positive comments from as far away as London, and a lot from right here in Portland.

On a related note regarding rear lights: I remember the late Sheldon Brown telling me about “target fixation” and impaired drivers. Every since then, I’ve always avoided blinkies, and ridden with a solid red in back.

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  • maks December 16, 2015 at 8:49 am

    oh! this has been a biggest peeve of mine… I use BRIGHT steady light which is placed at the fork opening (lower to the ground) and beamed down to the ground and soft blinking on my handlebars so i can detect reflector signs/poles/people.

    Riding on Sellwood Bridge/Macadam…. I nearly crashed at a corner last night cuz a cyclist stopped with his BRIGHT BLINKING “LOOK AT ME” light right into my eyes. I yelled at him I CAN’T F*ng SEE! Go by me!!!

    It’s horrible.

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    • Steve B. December 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks for setting the proper example!

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  • eli bishop December 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

    blinding lights are blinding, regardless of whether they are flashing or not, and they are a scourge on the earth. when i drive, flashing lights really help me distinguish between bikes & other cars, though.

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  • Moleskin December 16, 2015 at 10:29 am

    could not agree more.

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  • soren December 16, 2015 at 11:15 am

    i do not use flashing lights at night but i do not care in the least about flashing lights or bright lights as a cyclist, pedestrian, or driver. and until we have the infrastructural, educational, and legal standards of the netherlands i support anyone who feels safer using an ultra-bright light.

    when i drive at night, i intentially drive incredibly slowly so that i do not out-run my headlights. when i bike on a shared facility at night where people are using bright lights i slow the heck down. driving or biking slowly is a small price to pay for higher cycling mode share.

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  • Robert Burchett December 16, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Is there a role for bike shops here? Maybe half the people who buy crazy bright lights get them from their LBS. A word about etiquette and proper installation could go a long way. And of course the Internet will help out all the rest of the people (;-)

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    • Beth January 1, 2016 at 7:50 pm

      The majority of battery-+operated lights still offer a blinking feature and most shops use it to help them sell the lights.
      Many friends who drive cars tell me they appreciate the blinky light as it has become a de facto “marker” for bicycles on the road at night. A steady beam tells them far less about a vehicle, and in fact some mistake especially bright steady beams as belonging to motorized vehicles.

      It took time to create this issue and it will take time to change it.
      Meanwhile, I stopped using the blinking feature long ago, and have so far had no problems.

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      • Eric Leifsdad January 2, 2016 at 10:41 am

        Motorists’ appreciation of blinking as a bike identifier is part of the problem with blinking lights because these same motorists think “bikes are slow” — a perception which creates a lot of turning conflict. With steady lights, motorists err more on the side of caution and you’re more likely to get to keep the right-of-way which better fits 12mph+ travel. If you’re riding in the gutter with a blinking light, you’ll be treated more as a stationary obstacle — not good if someone wants to turn across your path.

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  • Rivelo
    Rivelo December 16, 2015 at 11:49 am

    We only sell the USB rechargeable lights here, and talk up solid beam riding.

    One of the main reasons people say they ride in “flashing” mode is to save their batteries. Quick & easy recharging with the USB lights helps take that one out of the mix.

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  • Steve B. December 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Here, here!! Even a bright light not in strobe mode can be blinding. It happens on neighborhood greenways as well. Thanks for spreading the word.

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  • Josh G December 16, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    I don’t think USB recharging really will be enough of a factor to put a huge dent in blinking users. The battery life is still so much better on flash or pulse, and Li-Ion batteries don’t have long-term lifespan.. eventually requiring charging at a minimum every 24 hours. Still better than buying disposables for convenience and environment, but not that huge of a difference.
    Supporting USB charging companies that have pulse option instead of flash (IE Light and Motion) is a step in right direction.

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    • It’s true that Li-ion batteries eventually lose their capacity, but the energy density of a single 18650 battery is about 4x that of a standard AA battery. Modern lights are just a lot brighter than lights used to be, so if you run it on high all the time it won’t last long. Many modern lights also have output regulation so the light remains the same brightness throughout the runtime. Older lights could easily be used for months without replacing the batteries, but the output would be so dim by the time you got around to replacing the batteries that the light was practically useless. Anyhow, on most modern lights the low setting is brighter than the highest setting was on older lights even with fresh batteries, and for riding in the city you can almost always get away with the low brightness mode.

      Of course the real solution here is proper optics to spread the light onto the road rather than shining it into people’s eyes. There’s some exciting new lights coming out which address that, and I’m looking forward to testing them out.

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  • Rivelo
    Rivelo December 16, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Josh, I charge my USB headlight every couple of weeks, and use it (about) an hour & a half a day this time a year.

    Sure, more frequent charging will likely be required the longer I own it….but I’ve had my current set-up “a while” and haven’t noticed that yet.

    I usually plug it into my laptop at the shop. That way, I tend not to forget it at the end of the day.

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    • realworld December 16, 2015 at 1:28 pm

      Can I ask what rechargable system your using that has that deep of a charge cell?

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      • Rivelo
        Rivelo December 16, 2015 at 1:35 pm

        I use the Cygolite “Metro”. Caveat: I run it on the low solid beam.

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  • Eric Leifsdad December 16, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Two solid lights on front and back. The more distance between them, the better a driver can identify your speed and distance. I have a red on the seat post and one next to the rear axle. I suspect from my experiences that even a dim blinking light on either end causes problems with judging speed or distance.

    If you want to make sure you can be seen, wear a solid headlight on your head, which you can flash at a specific driver by nodding toward them. But you also need a light on the bike itself. You can also flash by adjusting the angle or brightness of the light, turning your handlebars, or weaving.

    For a quick lesson in handling bright lights, put your headlight on your 2yo for a few minutes. (You may need a helper with dark glasses on standby for this exercise.)

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  • David Feldman December 16, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    i do not use flashing lights at night but i do not care in the least about flashing lights or bright lights as a cyclist, pedestrian, or driver. and until we have the infrastructural, educational, and legal standards of the netherlands i support anyone who feels safer using an ultra-bright light.when i drive at night, i intentially drive incredibly slowly so that i do not out-run my headlights. when i bike on a shared facility at night where people are using bright lights i slow the heck down. driving or biking slowly is a small price to pay for higher cycling mode share.Recommended 2

    I completely agree–mannerly, genteel lighting is a luxury I will not feel safe indulging in until the day when American drivers become human.

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    • Moleskin December 16, 2015 at 6:56 pm

      The OP is specifically talking about 2-way MUPs, where there is no need to blind everyone.

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    • Robert Burchett December 25, 2015 at 9:55 am

      Stay off my wheel then. If you are dressed as a low-flying plane, either stay back 100 feet or get out with the cars and get busy.

      Prop your bike, or your helmet light, in a riding attitude and look at it from 100 feet, 200 feet, and then (this is new) ten feet. Damaging? That’s what I do not want to see when I look back as I always do before I change my line.

      My various lights, reflectors, and shiny things I think of as ‘a little help for my friends’. It’s my eyes and ears that keep me alive. Do not blind me.

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  • Asher Atkinson December 16, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks for shedding light on this growing annoyance. For those who flash out of concern for battery life, please just carry a spare. The size, weight, and expense of lights as plummeted while quality and lumens as skyrocketed. There is no reason to not ride equipped with adequate lights that will last the duration of your trip in constant mode. I believe front flasher aren’t even legal in some states, including Washington.

    And as others have pointed out, poorly aligned bright lights are as annoying as flashers. Cars using high beams in traffic are alerted to their error with a curtious flash by other motorists. I wish we cyclists could come up with a similar etiquette when encountering blinding lights.

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    • realworld December 17, 2015 at 10:23 am

      “I wish we cyclists could come up with a similar etiquette when encountering blinding lights.”

      huge statement! I couldn’t agree more.

      I ask very politely (yet loud) “please turn off your flash” or “no flash on the path please”
      Did this last night on springwater and a guy turned around and started to pick a fight with me because I said “turn off your flashing strobe… please”

      When he confronted me I told him I couldn’t believe that he would argue my point or the fact that he took offense by my very polite request. he grumbled and rolled away.

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      • Robert Burchett December 25, 2015 at 10:04 am

        I put my hand between my eyes and the offending lights with my palm toward me. This is somewhat effective and also a universal gesture. If you are having only peaceable feelings you can of course turn your palm outward.

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  • Rivelo
    Rivelo December 16, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    Asher, I now say, “Too bright” as I pass a cyclist who has rendered me temporarily blind (especially on the Eastbank Esplanade). I have no idea if it does any good, but on my ride home this evening, it did *seem* as though there were fewer high-intensity flashers coming at me!

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  • Rivelo
    Rivelo December 16, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    Dear David Feldman, Please note that my original post was primarily about 2 way bike paths, like the Eastbank Esplanade, where there are no cars to be concerned about. Genteel lighting keeps fellow cyclists from blinding each other as we maneuver past black-clad joggers, and other hard-to-see moving objects. Cheers.

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  • Birke December 17, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Agree. Blinking makes it harder to tell where cyclists are and how fast they’re moving. Very bright lights and blinking lights — whether separately or at once — make me, as a cylist, disoriented and therefore less safe. It’s also a problem on Clinton during rush hour, when there’s really no good way to avoid the cylists with bright lights. And don’t get me started on the super-bright headlamps or backpack lights that are positioned right at my eye level.

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  • BIKELEPTIC December 17, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks for this post!

    For anyone that would like more information, I have compiled lots! This link will lead you down the rabbit hole. Excuse some broken links. I am currently working on fixing the relevant ones that relate to the articles connecting to the ones connecting to this. (Had a server swap a few months back and it’s been. . . a challenge getting things back together.)

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  • seRider December 18, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    I don’t like to use BRIGHT lights because they would just destroy my night vision everywhere outside the beam without providing enough well lighted area to be useful and safe anyway. I use blinking lights because I believe it makes my less-than-real-bright lights noticeable (cause that’s how it seems when I drive a car at night and see bikes) I wonder if there could be a rating system for bike lights that would be a guide to what is appropriate for the situation – be it bike/ped path, car shared greenway, or highway (e.g. Barbur Blvd.)? It sure runs the gamut now, from blinding strobes that make me want to yell to itty bitty LEDs only a cat will see!

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  • Rivelo
    Rivelo December 19, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    seRider, My feeling is that if you’re on a bike/pedestrian path and there are no cars present, the low solid beam is the only way to go.

    Blinking lights, even the less-than-super-blinding ones, make it hard for oncoming riders to gauge (your) distance/location, and they aren’t doing you any good because they’re not lighting your way.

    If a rider feels like they must using a blinking light on shared roadways, at least consider switching to a solid beam on bike/ped paths like the above-mentioned Eastbank Esplanade.

    And I keep thinking about the “target fixation” that comes up in these discussions. Having done a little research on the topic, I personally feel safer in *any* situation with solid head and tail lights. To each his own on that, but when you’re on bike/ped path, please think of your fellow riders and the impact your lights are having on their ability to safely navigate on their bikes.

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    • seRider December 20, 2015 at 10:34 am

      Rivelo, suggestion accepted! When I’m on Eastbank or Springwater, etc, I’ll use solid beam and continue to ponder the best choice in other situations. Perhaps if Clinton (my usual route) becomes tamer with less frantic cut-thru traffic on rainy rush hours….

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    • B. Carfree December 20, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      Sure, there is some evidence that people can “target fixate” on a light, although they can target fixate on anything. (A friend taught several other riders to not look at the crashes on the bike polo fields back in the ’80s when he realized they were staring at the crashes and then riding into them.) It seems to me that a better way to avoid having a brain-dead (yes, redundant) motorist target fixate on your dim light is to use a light that is so bright that a motorist cannot stand to stare at it.

      I do a lot of suburban/rural riding and I found that the motorists gave me more room when I switched over to a Dinotte R-400. Yes, I leave it flashing, but it’s far too bright to stare at. In fact, the flash makes it even harder to stare at and thus makes target fixation less likely.

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  • Curtis Roth December 20, 2015 at 8:44 am

    I just acquired a bright helmet-mounted Cygolite. I needed more light for my commute in the dark, rainy evening. But I agree that how such a light is aimed is important – I’ve certainly been peeved by the occasional oncoming light that is blinding and unsafe.

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  • chad butler December 24, 2015 at 8:01 am

    I live rural and the blinking function of a headlight reflecting off signs, trees, paint stripes or whatever helps the drivers BEHIND me recognize that there’s something different up ahead. Mostly it’s best during changing light conditions (dusk and dawn). Rural drivers might mistake a bicycle light that’s steady with a distant light from some farm or home.

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  • Robert Burchett December 25, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Another suggestion. A person who is somehow unable to damp their light on a well-lit urban path with other people present should just turn it on the bar and point at their own jacket. No fear, people will see you.
    If your light is bolted in place and people are reacting to it, you have it set up wrong.

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